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Tribunal challenges UK Ministry of Defence’s transparency on civilian casualties in military campaigns

The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) this week found itself challenged in a legal tribunal over its alleged inadequate supervision and transparency in managing civilian casualties during its military air operations against the Islamic State.

Criticism has been directed towards the MoD for its claim of only causing one civilian death throughout its nearly decade-long campaign against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. In March 2019, the Royal Air Force claimed it had harmed just one civilian among more than 4,000 enemy fighters during just over four years of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.

The figures, provided by the MoD in response to a freedom of information request by Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), show that of the 4,315 individuals targeted by British airstrikes from September 2014 to January 2019, 4,013 (93%) were killed and 302 (7%) were wounded. In total, 75% of those harmed were in Iraq, with 2,994 enemies killed there and 235 surviving with injuries. Syria accounted for the remaining 25%, with the RAF killing 1,019 enemy fighters there and wounding 67.

The UK has and continues to bomb the two countries in a drive against Islamic State terror group, as part of the US-led coalition formed in 2014 that also includes France, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. In total, the coalition by 2019 had carried out more than 33,000 strikes and has confirmed 1,190 deaths and 249 injuries among civilians. Most of these were claimed by the US.

Against this, the RAF claim has been widely regarded as improbable by insiders from the defence establishment and the civil service and the wider public. However, the MOD is steadfast in its refusal to acknowledge more civilian harm and to divulge the processes by which it records such injury.

To this end, the investigative charity Airwars initiated legal action against the government after its request for information about the single incident reported on 26 March 2018 was denied. Notably, part of the tribunal proceedings were closed to the media, allowing the MoD to present classified information, purportedly to protect national security.

Airwars said of their case: “We are simply asking the UK to show the same level of transparency on civilian harm as its allies, including the US.”

Senior MoD official Alexander Oliver raised serious doubts in his testimony about the UK’s ability and willingness to track and examine civilian deaths caused by its forces. Oliver acknowledged the public’s limited understanding of how military operations and allegations of civilian harm are monitored. He also confessed ignorance about the standard of proof used in investigating such allegations and whether there’s a written procedure or systematic tracking at play. This ambiguity led to concerns about the extent of oversight by the MoD, according to Will Perry, barrister for Airwars.

Ahead of the tribunal, the MoD admitted the omission of the March 2018 airstrike from its public records, raising further questions about its capability to oversee and investigate potential civilian harm. Oliver attributed this discrepancy to communication issues within the armed forces and between the forces and the MoD.

Joe Dyke, Airwars head of investigations, pointed out that while the US has a transparent process for assessing civilian harm reports, the UK still lacks clarity in this area. “In the United States we have a very clear understanding of how that process goes through, we have known that for five or six years. In the UK we still have no understanding of what that looks like. That is why we are here,” he said.

Veterans Minister Johnny Mercer echoed this sentiment in a parliamentary committee hearing in April 2019, stating the implausibility of the claim that only one civilian was killed given the volume of ordnance dropped. “The reality is people think ‘well, you’ve dropped 4,500 pieces of ordnance. Of course, the idea that you haven’t killed any civilians is nonsense,” he told Parliament at the time.

The tribunal also referenced the Chilcot report on the Iraq war, underscoring the need for the UK to actively identify and mitigate risks to civilians in armed conflicts. Without transparency in procedures, holding the government accountable remains a challenge. This tribunal hearing highlights significant gaps in the UK’s approach to civilian protection in military operations and calls for greater accountability and openness.

Dr. Iain Overton of Action on Armed Violence expressed concerns about this lack of transparency and oversight, noting that it not only erodes public trust but also raises serious questions about the UK’s adherence to international humanitarian standards

“The lack of transparency and oversight in how the Ministry of Defence tracks and investigates civilian casualties not only undermines public trust but also raises serious questions about the UK’s commitment to international humanitarian norms,” he said.

“We applaud Airwars’ legal challenge and hope that this – alongside the inquiry into allegations of extra-judicial killings in Afghanistan – will forced the MOD to realise that it cannot ignore the fact its current attitude to recording and accounting for civilian harm in their conflicts is woefully inadequate.”